Five key battles: South Africa vs. Australia, 2nd Test

By Antoinette Muller 19 February 2014

South Africa and Australia are ready to roll in the second Test starting at St. George’s Park in Port Elizabeth on Thursday. With the Proteas 1-0 down, it’s a must-win for the hosts if they hope to salvage that elusive series-victory over Australia. ANTOINETTE MULLER picks five key battles for the second Test.

Captains talk a lot before a Test. A lot is said about preparation, focus, intent, focusing on processes and sticking to game plans. Graeme Smith and Michael Clarke are both veterans when it comes to dealing with media. From Smith’s quip that he has “made a career out of looking ugly” to Clarke throwing a curve ball of possibly playing four fast bowlers – press conferences are entertaining, but they give away no more than they need to, and they rarely add extra insight.

What happens on the field on the day does hold water, though, and with South Africa having their backs against the wall, here are five key battles which will play a massive role in deciding the second Test.

Graeme Smith and Alviro Petersen’s opening partnership

Graeme Smith and Alviro Petersen have played side-by-side in 50 innings. They’ve accumulated 2,094 runs at an average of 43.62 in the last four years. They’ve had two 50-run partnerships and two 100-run partnerships in their last 16 innings. Those aren’t the worst figures, but in the first Test, the failure from the openers was a massive struggle for South Africa. When the openers failed to survive the onslaught from Mitchell Johnson twice, the pressure on the rest of the batsmen mounted and the whole game plan changed. Their response will be South Africa’s acid test. There were some suggestions on Wednesday that Petersen might not play due to illness, which will mean that Dean Elgar comes in to open with Graeme Smith. Elgar had his struggles against Australia before and he lost his central contract on Tuesday. Should he play, he’ll certainly have a point to prove, something which is fast becoming the central theme of this tour.

Quinton de Kock was flown in as emergency cover for Petersen, but he will not be blooded as an opener; instead, he could slot in lower down the order.

Neutralising Johnson

You’d be forgiven for being sick of hearing of Mitchell Johnson. His pace, his bowling, his moustache, his performance, the psychological scarring, every single thing has been about Johnson. That kind of talk has not been undue, though: the man is in phenomenal form and on one of the hottest streaks of his career. However, South Africa need to just show some balls (take that however you wish). AB de Villiers said the key to playing that kind of bowling was “not [to] be afraid to get hit a few times”. South Africa did take a few bowls in the first Test, but their approach was, in some cases, edgy. Ducking was dodgy with bat periscopes raised above their heads, and they just generally looked unsettled when there often was no need to be. Sure, reaction time diminishes when a piece of leather is being flung at your head at 150km/h, but being tuned in to knowing that kind of delivery is coming is something South Africa has to adjust to. In the nets on Wednesday, the net bowlers attempted a few short balls at the South Africans, but nobody got even close to the kind of brutal assault Johnson is likely to dish out. When Mohammed Irfan was a novelty to them, a few coaches got on ice coolers and did throw downs from a dizzy height. Perhaps setting the bowling machine to its maximum would have been good practice.

Getting the team balance right

South Africa could very well end up going somewhat for the left field and dropping Robin Peterson for Dean Elgar. Since batting was the biggest issue and both Elgar and Duminy can contribute to the spin department, Peterson could very well end up getting the chop. With Wayne Parnell coming in for Ryan McLaren, South Africa might end up with three changes to the side for the second Test. If Petersen is not fit, Elgar will open while Peterson could be dropped to make way for Quinton de Kock. That is possibly the only reason why De Kock was flown in as an emergency backup. Peterson has been under pressure and with the pitch looking quite green, it’s likely that South Africa will place enough faith in the part-time bowlers to do the job rather than persisting with Peterson being a liability. Why else would cover be needed for an opening batsman if there’s already an opening batsman in the team? The team could work like this: if Petersen is fit, Elgar could come in at number six with JP Duminy slotting in at seven. Should Petersen not be fit, Elgar will open, De Kock will bat at six and Duminy will remain at seven. 

Posting a total

One of the things which made South Africa so strong over the last few years is their batsmen’s ability to bat for ages. In the last four years, they have only been skittled out for under 200 five times. It happened against Australia and England in 2009, against India in 2010 and against Australia in 2011 and against Sri Lanka in 2011. Not once in those five years have they been bundled out for 200 or under twice in an innings. Then Centurion happened and suddenly things went to hell in a handcart. The South African batsmen coming together is one of the most desperately needed things in the second Test.

A little bit of luck can go a long way

Michael Clarke is a man who believes in luck, but he also believes in skill. So he said at his pre-match press conference on Wednesday. Australia’s luck, skills and the execution of their plans were perfect in the first Test. Every catch, every edge, every crack and every swing went their way. Sometimes, luck turns and luck can help turn things around. Lady Luck isn’t easily courted and there is no telling which side she will pitch up on. Maybe all South Africa needs for invigoration, though, is just a little bit of luck. DM

Photo: Australia’s Mitchell Johnson responds to comments from South African supporters during the fourth day of their first cricket test match in Pretoria, February 15, 2014.  REUTERS/Mike Hutchings


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